… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

October 6, 2014

Helen Nissenbaum on Ad Nauseum, resistance through obfuscation, and weapons of the weak

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 6:00 pm

Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum is one of the leading thinkers about the ethical issues we face in digital spaces. Her work on privacy as “contextual integrity” is one of the most tools for understanding why some online actions taken by companies and individuals feel deeply transgressive while others seem normal – we expect online systems to respect norms of privacy appropriate for the context we are interacting in, and we are often surprised and dismayed when those norms are violated. At least as fascinating, for me at least, Nissenbaum doesn’t just write books and articles – she writes code, in collaboration with a team of longtime collaborators, which brings her strategies for intervention into the world, where others can adopt them, test them out, critique or improve them.

Professor Nissenbaum spoke at MIT last Thursday about a new line of inquiry, the idea of obfuscation as a form of resistance to “data tyranny”. She is working on a book with Finn Brunton on the topic and, to my delight, more software that puts forward obfuscation as a strategy for resistance to surveillance.

Her talk begins by considering PETs – privacy enhancing technologies – building on definitions put forth by Aleecia McDonald. In reacting to “unjust and uncomfortable data collection”, we wish to resist but we do not have the capacity within the systems themselves. We can create privacy enhancing tools as a mode of self-help, and tools that leverage obfuscation fit within the larger frame of PETs, self-help and resistance.

She defines “data tyranny” drawing on work by Michael Walzer, whose work focuses on approaches to ethics in practice: “You are tyrannized to the extent that you can be controlled by the arbitrary decision of others.” Obfuscation, Nissenbaum tells us, fights against this tyranny.

Using her framework of privacy as contextual integrity, from Privacy in Context (2010), she explains that privacy is not complete control of our personal information, nor is it perfect secrecy. Instead, it is “appropriate information flow that is consistent with ideal informational norms.” This contextual understanding is key, she explains, “I don’t believe that a right to privacy is a right to control information about oneself, or that any spread of information is wrong.” What’s wrong is when this flow of information is inconsistent with our expectations given the context. Sharing information about what books we’re searching for with the librarian we asked for help doesn’t mean we’ve consented to share that information with a marketer looking to target advertisements to us – we expect one sort of sharing in that context and are right to feel misused when those norms are bent or broken.

Different privacy enhancing technologies use different strategies. One project Nissenbaum has collaborated on uses cryptography to facilitate resistance. Cryptagram (think Instagram plus crypto) allows you to publish password-protected photos on online social media. The photos appear as a black and white bitmap, unless you have the password (and the Cryptagram Chrome plugin installed). By encrypting the photos (with AES, and rendering the output as a JPEG), you gain finer control over Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, and you prevent whoever is hosting your media from attempting to identify faces in photos, or building a more detailed profile of you using information gleaned from the images.

Other PETs use data obfuscation as their core tool of resistance. Nissenbaum defines obfuscation as “The production, inclusion, addition or communication of misleading, ambiguous, or false data in an effort to evade, distract or confuse data gatherers or diminish the reliability (and value) of data aggregations.” In other words, obfuscation doesn’t make data unreadable, it hides it in a crowd.


Good luck finding Waldo now.

TrackMeNot is a project Nissenbaum began in 2006 in collaboration with Daniel Howe and Vincent Toubiana. It was a reaction to a Department of Justice subpoena that sought search query data from Google as a way of documenting online child pornography, as well as the deanonymization of an AOL data set, suggesting that individuals could be personally identified on the basis of their search queries. “The notion that all searches were being stored and held felt shocking at the time,” Nissenbaum explained. “Perhaps we all take it for granted now.”

Her friends in computer science departments told her “there’s nothing you can do about it”, as Google is unlikely to change their policies about logging search requests. So she and her colleagues developed TrackMeNot, which sends a large number of fake search queries to a search engine, along with the valid query, then automatically sorts through the results the engine sends back, presenting only the valid query. The tool works within Firefox, and she reports that roughly 40,000 users use it regularly. You can watch what queries the tool is sending out, or choose your own RSS feed to generate queries from. (From the presentation, it looks like, by default, the tool is subscribing to a newspaper, chopping articles into n-grams and sending random n-grams to Google or other engines as “cover traffic”.)

The tool has prompted many reactions, including objects that TrackMeNot doesn’t work or is unethical. Security experts have suggested to her that search engines may be able to sort out the chaff from the wheat, filtering aside her fake queries. The questions about the ethics of obfuscation are at least as interesting to Nissenbaum as a philosopher.

Obfuscation, she tells us, is everywhere. It’s simply the strategy of hiding in plain sight. She quotes G.K. Chesterton, from The Innocence of Father Brown: “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”

With Finn Branton, she has been investigating historical and natural examples of leaf hiding and forest growing strategies. Some are easy to understand: if you don’t want your purchases tracked by your local supermarket, you can swap loyalty cards with a friend, obfuscating both your profiles. Others are more technically complicated. During the second World War, bomber pilots began releasing black paper backed with aluminum foil before releasing their payloads. The reflective paper obscured their signal on radar, showing dozens or hundreds of targets instead of the single plane, making it possible for bombers to evade interception.

Programmers and hardware engineers routinely obfuscate code to make it difficult to replicate their work. (As someone who has managed programmers for two decades, I think unintentional obfuscation is at least as common as intentional…) But some of the best examples of obfuscation are less technical in nature. Consider the Craigslist robber, who robbed a bank in Monroe, Washington in 2008, and got away by fading into a crowd. He’d put an ad on Craigslist, asking road maintenance workers to show up for a job interview by asking them to dress in a blue shirt, yellow vests, safety goggles, a respirator mask. A dozen showed up, and the robber – also wearing the outfit – was able to get away.

Nature obfuscates as well. The orb spider, who needs her web out in the open to catch prey, needs to avoid becoming prey herself. She builds a target of dirt, grass and other material in the web, exactly the size of the spider, hoping to lure wasps to attack the diversion instead of her.

Does obfuscation work? Is it ethical? Should it be banned? Examples like the orb spider suggest that it’s a natural strategy for self-preservation. But examples like Uber’s technique of calling Gett and Lyft drivers for rides, standing them up and then calling to recruit them, which Nissenbaum cites as another example of obfuscation, raise uncomfortable questions.

“What does it mean to ask ‘Does it work?'” asks Nissenbaum. “Works for what? There is no universally externalizable criterion we can ask for whether obfuscation works.” Obfuscation could work to buy time, or to provide plausible deniability. It could provide cover, foil profiling, elude surveillance, express a protest or subvert a system. Obfuscation that works for one or more criteria may fail for others.

The EFF, she tells us, has been a sometimes fierce critic of TrackMeNot, perhaps due to their ongoing support for Tor, which Nissenbaum makes clear she admires and supports. She concedes that TrackMeNot is not a tool for hiding your identity as Tor is, and notes that they’ve not yet decided to block third-party cookies with TrackMeNot, a key step to providing identity protection. But TrackMeNot is working under a different threat model – it seeks to obfuscate your search profile, not disguise your identity.

She and Brunton are working on a taxonomy of obfuscation, based on what a technique seeks to accomplish. Radar chaff and the Craigslist robber are examples of obfuscation to buy time, while loyalty card swapping, Tor relays and TrackMeNot seek to provide plausible deniability. Other projects obfuscate to provide cover, to elude surveillance or as a form of protest, as in the apocryphal story of the King of Denmark wearing a yellow Star of David and ordering his subjects to do so as well to obscure the identity of Jewish Danes.

For Nissenbaum, obfuscation is a “weapon of the weak” against data tyranny. She takes the term “weapon of the weak” from anarchist political scholar James C. Scott, who used the term to explain how peasants in Malaysia resist authority when they have insufficient resources to start a rebellion. Obfuscatory measures may be a “weak weapon of the weak”, vulnerable to attack. But these methods need to be considered in circumstantial ways, specific to the problem we are trying to solve.

“You’re an individual interacting with a search engine”, Nissenbaum tells us, “and you feel it’s wrong that your intellectual pursuit, your search engine use, should be profiled by search engines any more than we should be tracked in libraries.” The search engines keep telling you “we’re going to improve the experience for you”. How do we resist? “You can plead with the search engine, or plead with the government. But the one window we have into the search engine is our queries.” We can influence search engines this way “because we are not able to impose our will through other ways.”

This tactic of obfuscation as the weapon of the weak is one she’s bringing into a new space with a new project, Ad Nauseum, developed with Daniel Howe and Mushon Zer-Aviv. The purpose of Ad Nauseum is pretty straightforward: it clicks on all the ads you encounter. It’s built on top of Adblock Plus, but in addition to blocking ads, it registered a click on each one, and also collects the ads for you, so you can see them as a mosaic and better understand what the internet thinks of you.

Again, Nissenbaum asks us to consider strategies of obfuscation as having many strategies towards many ends. These strategies differ in terms of the source of obfuscation, the amount and type of noise in the system, whether targets are selective or general, whether the approach is stealthy or bald-faced, who benefits from the obfuscation and the resources of who you are trying to hide from. Ad Nauseum is bald-faced, general, personal in source (though it benefits from cooperation with others) and is taking on an adversary that is less powerful than the NSA, but perhaps not much less powerful.

Aside from questions of whether this will work, Nissenbaum asks if this is ethical. Objections include that it’s deceptive, that it wastes resources, damages the system, and enables free riding on the backs of your peers. In an ethical analysis, she reminds us, ends matter, and here the ends are just: eluding profiling and surveillance, preserving ideal information norms. This is different from robbing a bank, destroying a rival, or escaping a predator.

But means matter too. Ethicists ask if means are proportionate. If there is harm that comes from obfuscation, can another method work as well? In this case, that other method can be hard to see. Opting out hasn’t worked, as the Do Not Track effort collapsed. Transparency is a false solution, as companies already flood us with data about how they’re using our data, leading us to accept policies we don’t and can’t read. Should we shape corporate best practice? That’s simply asking the fox to guard the henhouse. And changing laws could take years if it ever succeeds.

In exploring waste, free ride, pollution, damage or subversion, Nissenbaum tells us, you must ask “What are you wasting? Who’s free riding? What are you polluting? Whose costs, whose risks, whose benefits should we consider.” Is polluting the stream of information sent to advertisers somehow worse that polluting my ability to read online without being polluted by surveillance?

Big data shifts risks around, Nissenbaum tells us. As an advertiser, I want to spend my ad money wisely. Tracking users shifts my risk in buying ads. The cost is backend collection of data, which places people at risk: think of recent revelations from Home Depot about stolen credit card information. Databases that are collected for the public good, for reasons like preventing terrorism, may expose individuals to even greater risk. We need a conversation about whether there are greater goods to protect than just keeping ourselves free of terrorism.

We can understand weapons of the weak, Nissenbaum tells us, by understanding threat models. We need to study the science, engineering and statistical capabilities of these businesses. In the process we discover “enabling execution vectors”, ways we can attack these systems through hackable standards, open protocols, and open access to systems. And we need to ensure that our ability to use these weapons of the weak is not quashed by enforceable terms of service that simply prevent their use. Without having access to the inner machination of systems, Nissenbaum argues, these weapons may be all we have.


An exceedingly lively conversation followed this talk. I was the moderator of that conversation, and so I have no good record of what transpired, but I’ll use this space – where I usually discuss Q&A – to share some of my own questions for Professor Nissenbaum.

One question begins by asking “What’s the theory of change for the project?” If the goal us to collapse the ad industry as we know it, I am skeptical of the project’s success at scale. Clicking ads is an extremely unusual behavior for human websurfers – clickthrough on banner ads is a tiny fraction of one percent for most users. Clicking on lots of ads is, however, frequent behavior for a clickfraud bot, a tool that’s part of a strategy in which a person hosts ads on their site, then unleashes a program to click on those ads, giving micropayments to person for each ad clicked. Essentially, it defrauds advertisers to reward a content provider. Clickfraud bots are really common, and most ad networks are pretty good at not paying for fraudulent clicks. This leads me to conclude that much of what Ad Nauseum does will be filtered out by ad networks and not counted as clicks.

This is a good outcome, Nissenbaum argues – you’ve disguised your human behavior as bot behavior and encouraged ad networks to remove you from their system. But it’s worth thinking about the costs. If I am a content provider, attracting human users who look like bots has two costs. One, I get no revenue from them as ad providers filter out their clicks. Two, I may well lose advertisers as they decide to move from my bot-riddled site and to sites that have a higher proportion of “human” readers. She’s shifted the cost from the reader to the content host rather than crashing the system. (Offering this scenario to Nissenbaum, using myself as an example of a content provider, and positing a Global Voices that was supported by advertising, I spun a case of our poor nonprofit going under thanks to her tool. In response, she quipped “Serves you right for working with those tracking-centric companies.” I’m looking forward to a more nuanced answer if she agrees with the premise of my critique.)

If the theory of change for the project is sparking a discussion about the ethics of advertising systems – a topic I am passionate about – rather than crashing the ad economy as we know it, I’m far more sympathetic. To me, Ad Nauseum does a great job of provoking conversations about the bargain of attention – and surveillance – for free content and services. I just don’t see it as an especially effective weapon for bringing those systems to their knees.

My other question centers on the idea that this technique is a “weapon of the weak”. To put it bluntly, a tenured professor at a prestigious university is nowhere near as disenfranchised as the peasants Scott is writing about. This isn’t a criticism that Nissenbaum is disrespecting the oppression of those worse off than she is, or a complaint about making a false comparison between two very different types of oppression. Instead, it’s a question about the current state of the political process in the United States. When a learned, powerful and enfranchised person feels like she’s powerless to change the regulation of technology, something is deeply messed up. Why does the regulation of technology turn the otherwise powerful into the weak? (Or is this perception of weakness the symbol of a broader alienation from politics and other forms of civic engagement?)

I’ve been advocating a theory of civic efficacy that considers at least four possible levers of change: seeking change through laws, through markets, through shaping social norms or through code. Using this framework, we could consider passing laws to ensure that the FTC protects user privacy on online systems. Or we could try to start companies that promise not to use user data (DuckDuckGo, Pinboard) and try to ensure they outcompete their competitors. We could try to shape corporate norms, seeking acknowledgement that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.

If Nissenbaum’s solution were likely to crash advertising as we know it, it might be superior to any of these other theories of change. If it is, instead, a creative protest that obscures an individual’s data and makes a statement at the cost of damaging online publishers, it raises the question of whether these means are justifiable or others bear closer consideration.

I tend to share Nissenbaum’s sense that advocating for regulation in this space is likely to be futile. I have more hopes for the market-based and norms-based theories – I support Rebecca MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights project because it seeks to make visible companies that protect digital rights and allows users to reward their good behavior.

But I raise the issue of weapons of the weak because I suspect Nissenbaum is right – I have a hard time imagining a successful campaign to defend online privacy against advertisers. If she’s right that many of us hate and resent the surveillance that accompanies an ad-supported internet, what’s so wrong in our political system that we feel powerless to change these policies through conventional channels?

Coco Fusco’s introduction to the Cuban blogosphere

Filed under: Blogs and bloggers,CFCM,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 2:26 pm

Multimedia artist, writer, activist and teacher Coco Fusco is a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies this year, and she introduced herself to the Center for Civic Media community with a stunning talk this past Thursday, unpacking the history and the possible futures of the Cuban blogosphere. Fusco is a frequent traveler to Cuba and has interviewed many of the key figures in the space and offered an overview that’s complex, subtle and by far the most informative picture of the space I’ve heard thus far.

(Video of Fusco’s talk is available here.)

Fusco frames the Cuban blogosphere, in part, from her own background in performance art. Since 2008, when restrictions on cellphone use were lifted in Cuba, opponents to the Castro system have been engaged in activism that Fusco sees as having “a very media-savvy, performative character.” Citizen journalists and activists are sending text, videos and photos that document confrontation with state authorities, which has turned dissent into a kind of performance art.

If dissent is a performance, part of the audience is the United States. Not only is there a massive expatriate Cuban population in the US, there is a media system based and funded in the US, hungry for reports from independent Cuban bloggers. USAID has had a direct role in building this blogosphere, Fusco tells us. Her slides begin with the image of a Wifi logo painted onto a wall in the colors of the Cuban flag. These images are painted by activists, then painted over, in an ongoing battle. “If you didn’t know better, you might assume that ordinary Cubans were demanding free wifi. In fact, it’s part of a campaign by a USAID-supported group.”

The support from the US, the ways Cuba is trying to influence online speech, lead to a blogosphere in which participants are performing for multiple audiences. That said, the space has emerged as a critical digital public sphere for Cuban political dialog. Conventional public debate in Cuba is extremely limited, Fusco tells us. It’s officially organized, hosted solely in Havana, isn’t documented via video and has carefully controlled attendance. There’s no significant space for debate in Cuban daily newspapers or television, so the debates that happen in blogs, often hosted in Spain or Miami, is a critical digital public sphere.

The figures involved with this new public sphere are complicated. Elicér Ávila, blogger at Diário de Cuba, is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, send through Spain, Fusco tells us. On the one hand. he’s famous for confronting a government official in one of these staged official meetings, and his blog is a key part of the Cuban online scene. On the other hand, he “came out” in 2011 as a spy (in an interview with Cuban super-blogger Yoani Sanchez), part of Operación Verdad, a government project that encouraged the online harassment of independent bloggers in online media. He’s subsequently been “reborn” as a dissident, demanding a new, competitive political party to challenge the state. Figuring out who’s on what side, who is supported by whom and whose politics are genuine or performative is part of understanding this complex space.

Fusco offers a brief timeline of the internet in Cuba, starting with the arrival of internet service in 1996. This service was expensive and out of reach of most ordinary Cubans, so internet usage didn’t really come into play until the middle of the next decade. The “black spring” of 2003, where 75 journalists and human rights activists were imprisoned for their offline media activities heled step the stage for Cuba’s internet transformation. In 2006 when Fidel stepped down and Raúl took over power, many expected the political environment to open up somewhat. But it took “the Pavon case”, the online debate about the rehabilitation of a former government censor and extremist, to demonstrate the utility of online spaces as a place for political discussion. These dialogs took place via email, the medium most accessible to the few Cubans who were online at that time.

Shortly afterwards, Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y blog opened this new space to a younger generation. Shortly after, in 2008, bloggers began meeting in public, weekly, to discuss both political issues and the challenges o being online in Cuba. At the same time, restrictions were lifted on cellphone ownership, opening a new channel to online participation for the majority of Cubans who did not have access to an internet connected computer. By 2009, Sanchez and her husband had founded Blogger Academy, which trains bloggers in how to use key social media tools. The Taza de Café blog, started by Lizabel Monica, launched with technical advice about accessing internet services using Cuba’s slow internet. And in a validation of blogger influence, the Cuban government responded by launching a set of government-sponsored blogs to counter the independent ones. These blogs now outnumber independent blogs by 2:1, but have a much lower reach and readership.

Like many closed societies, Cuba has a complicated love/hate relationship with the internet. Access to the net in increasing – there are now about 1.5 million cellphones in Cuba for a population of 10-11 million, so mobile access has outpaced access to land lines, with teledensity at about 10%. Fusco estimates that roughly 25% of Cubans have internet access, but notes that there’s no way to measure that decisively, as Cubans use wifi from hotels, rent internet access from foreign workers and use any number of creative methods to get online.

The Cuban government tends to see the internet as a threat to national security, and especially as a tool for the US State department to engage in pro-democracy propaganda. Thus the Cuban internet is controlled via site censorship, through the criminalization of some kinds of communication and through limitations to online access. Officially, email in Cuba is through an in-country system, where you need to be a union member or university student to have access. The mobile phone company, Cubacel, is a monopoly, controlled by ETECSA, the national telephone company. Access is slow, and costs are extremely high. Access through a hotel costs $6 an hour, and $4.50 an hour at internet cafes. In a country where the average salary is $20/month, there’s not a ton of usage through those channels. More common is access through the mobile phones, where charges are $1 per SMS message and $0.45 a minute for a domestic phone call. Fortunately, diasporans and other supporters of Cuban bloggers are able to send phones into the country and top up mobile phone accounts remotely. (Most Cuban bloggers have a “donate” button on their blog, which solicits funds for cellphone airtime.) The $2 billion in remittances into Cuba annually are what makes citizen media on the Cuban internet possible.

Even when Cubans can afford to get online, they face substantial technical challenges. Email is really the online reliable service in Cuba, so posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter happens primarily through email – the best bloggers have setups that trigger tweets and Facebook updates as soon as they publish new content. Cubans have grown used to a culture of surveillance, in which journalism is pre-approved, where sites critical of the government are censored, and where surveillance of phone calls and email is routine. Still, even in such a controlled environment, some information spreads relatively freely.

Fusco explains that most Cubans don’t want clandestine political media so much as they want games, music and movies. They get these through the “paquete”, the colloquial term for a package of digital media delivered on USB flash drives. These drives are assembled by diasporans and often include political news from TV Martí, as well as entertainment media. The keys sell for roughly 2 CUC, or $2 (the Cuban convertible peso, which trades for roughly $1 per CUC – it’s a parallel currency to the Cuban peso, for use in foreign transactions, by tourists and others.) Since games often circulate on these keys, it’s become a popular business to run gaming parlors for $1 an hour. While wholly political paquetes do circulate, the ones that mix political and entertainment content seem to have the best success. (I see parallels to work friends have done circulating CDs with political content in Zimbabwe, to be played on buses and in taxis. A mix that’s 2/3rd to 3/4s music, with 1/3-1/4 political content seems to work, while all politics tends not to get well circulated.)

The paquete is not the only way Cubans are hacking digital media, Fusco tells us. Used phones and smartphones need to be modified for use in Cuba. Anyone licensed to do phone repairs will employ someone – often a small team – to alter these imported phones. There’s also a business in modifying Nintendos and Playstations for domestic use. All software used in Cuba tends to be pirated, and some software – particularly mobile phone applications that depend on network access – need to be modified to work mostly offline. There’s a thriving online market for these products – revolico.com – which Fusco describes as “the illegal Cuban craigslist”.

Those Cubans who are able to get online are often engaged in independent blogging and citizen journalism. Generación Y, founded by Sanchez, is now translated by volunteers into 14 languages (leading to accusations that she obviously must be a US spy, as volunteers obviously couldn’t be counted on to translate a website into dozens of languages…) Sanchez also maintains Voces Cubanas, a group blog representing the broader Cuban dissident blogophere. Havana Times is edited in Nicaragua, but features writing from people on the Island and is regularly translated into English. In addition to technical advice from La Taza De Café, Cuban bloggers can seek legal advice from Cuban Legal Advisor, run by Laritza Diversent, who tracks changing media and propaganda laws closely and offers advice for dissidents on jail and detentions.

That this community survives is something of a miracle, as blogging began as the process of sending SMS messages to friends and asking them to post to websites. Called “blind blogging”, this was replaced by using sites like Blogger, Twitter and YouTube via email. Yoani Sanchez showed Cubans how to use MMS to send data-rich short messages, which Fusco argues led to a major change in US journalistic coverage of Cuba. Still, these journalists and activists face a daunting set of challenges, starting with the difficulties of building a local base, given the cost of accessing the Internet. There are draconian legal restrictions if you are found of publishing with US government involvement, and the online space is deeply dependent on US pro-democracy funding. Fusco explains the debates that occur in Cuba – is blogging a “mercenary activity” funded by an imperialist government, or is this autonomous action by Cuban bloggers, who need money to support this work.

In addition, bloggers are isolated geographically and politically, and rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with others facing similar situations. State security has proven itself effective in fomenting discord between opposition groups. And these groups and bloggers tend to have narrowly focused agendas that can make it hard for them to reach international audiences even when they are technically able.

Fusco offers a bit more hope to Cubans using digital media to shape culture through literature, music and film. Projects like the Voces literary magazine are providing an alternative space for artists who don’t have official recognition from artists and writers union. (This official recognition matters – it is difficult to travel without this official status.) Artists have taken to keeping online video diaries to document their work and their process, hoping this will serve as a “shield” if they are detained or arrested and a rallying point for their supporters. Even given tight restrictions on content, some controversial material, especially films, are making the rounds of global film festivals, including films like Monte Rouge (about a security official visiting the house of an intellectual) and Los Aldeanos (link en español) (a documentary about Cuba’s hip hop underground). Cuban music is making an impact as well – Porno Para Ricardo, fronted by enfant terrible Gorki Aguila, survives and has visibility globally despite four (likely politically motivated) drug arrests of Aguila.


El Comandante, by Porno Para Ricardo

Fusco’s talk ends with discussion of the uncomfortable and complex relationship between Cuban media and audiences abroad. Blog dailies are published in Havana, Miami and Madrid. These sites, which feature writing from Cubans on the island, serve as what should be the opposition press, and are widely quoted by wire services and other international news agencies. They also serve as fodder for TV and Radio Martí, the American-produced channels that seek to reach Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. Martí received a large increase in funding in the wake of the 1996 Helms-Burton acts tightening US trade embargo against Cuba (a reaction to Cuba shooting down “Brothers to the Rescue” planes that sought to rescue Cuban refugees on rafts), and now the US government provides massive funding to pro-democracy media in Cuba.

This funding has supported people like Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, who made five trips to Cuba bringing in phones and, perhaps, equipment designed to disguise satellite phone calls. Gross was arrested in 2011 and his family worries he will die in Cuban prison during his 15 year sentence. While Gross’s case has drawn international attention, Fusco notes that Cuban bloggers who accept US support – sometimes unknowingly – risk similar sentences.

She is hopeful that the $2 billion in remittance money send to Cuba might have more of an impact than the $70 million allocated to USAID, much of which is spent in the US. Projects like ZunZuneo, secretly created by USAID contractors to be the “Cuban Twitter” are far less interesting that projects like Yagruma, which supported creative projects in Cuba through a Kickstarter model before being stopped by the Treasury department in 2013, or Roots of Hope, organized by Cuban Harvard students, which coordinates tech donations to Cuban citizens.

Two interesting points came up in discussion with the Center for Civic Media team. Dalia Othman, an expert on social media in Palestine, noted that the Arabic blogopshere has moved almost entirely onto newer social media platforms. This shift hasn’t happened in Cuba, Fusco believes, because time moves differently on the Cuban internet. “It takes four hours to get to work, so why would you blog everyday? There’s no sense for the tactical use of brevity.” And because Cuba’s internet access is so slow, the always on world of social media doesn’t make much sense to Cuban users.

I asked Fusco what she would advise Secretary of State Kerry to do regarding independent media in Cuba. Her main point was that Cubans are far smarter about what works in Cuba than US contractors. Acknowledging that it’s dangerous for the US to fund Cubans directly, she’d like to see more diverse and less polarized funding for media in Cuba. At the same time, it’s important to question some of the Florida-based expatriate organizations, which have historically been sponsoring violent opposition and are now sponsoring technology. Critically, she thinks Cubans need to get beyond the idea that US support for independent media is a “mercenary” activity – independent journalism should not be seen as mercenary, or as a US demand. Instead, it’s a demand for a functional society.

September 17, 2014

A public apology – on screwing up by not questioning assumptions – my talk at #BIF10

Filed under: ideas,Media — Ethan @ 11:41 am

I spoke this morning at the tenth incarnation of BIF, Business Innovation Factory, an annual conference in Providence, RI that focuses on storytelling. It’s got a lot less product promotion and self-celebration than many conferences on innovation, and more personal stories, which is why I always enjoy attending. So I thought I’d share a personal story that I’m still digesting and the questions it raises for me. If it reads a little differently from most of my writing, the context helps explain why.


About a month ago, I wrote an article about a simple idea. I asked whether anyone really believed that advertising should be the main way we supported content and services on the internet. Given how poorly banner advertising on the web worksGiven that nobody likes banner ads, and given that the current system puts users under surveillance, which in turn seems to inure us to government surveillance, I wondered whether there might be a better way.

Initially, the piece did what I hoped for – it sparked a lively conversation about business models for the web, particularly about business models for news. My friend Jeff Jarvis, whose faith in Google inspires envy in leaders of the Catholic Church, reassured me that once advertising got a little better, I’d like the ads I was reading online, really! I heard pitches for ethical advertising, for different approaches to subscriptions and to micropayments. I’d gotten something off my chest, had sparked a good conversation and was learning from the responses. As a blogger and a media scholar, life was good.

But something unexpected happened halfway through my day in the sun. For a brief and uncomfortable time, I became the most hated man on the internet. Here’s how that happened.

In writing about advertising, I wanted to talk about mistakes we’d made collectively, as an industry, not just beat up on Mark Zuckerberg or any other individual. So I took responsibility for my own small contribution to making the world an ugly, ad-filled place. I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that almost twenty year ago, I invented the pop-up ad.

My intentions were good. (Please stop throwing things at the stage.) I was part of the team that started Tripod.com, an early webpage hosting company. My popup put an ad in a separate window from a user’s webpage, which was a way of distancing an advertiser from user generated content, reassuring advertisers that they wouldn’t actually be on the same page as a paranoid essay about government conspiracies or a collection of nude images. I thought it was a pretty good solution. I’m really, really sorry.

My editor at the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance, is a lot smarter about her readers I am. She knew that this admission, which I hid as a parenthetical comment, would be far more interesting to most readers than a 3000 word essay on advertising and a culture of surveillance. She did a brief interview with me about the process of creating the ad and wrote a 300 word story titled “The First Pop Up Ad”

And then things got weird.
Yes, that’s Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien making fun of me. And yes, that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened tome.

Adrienne’s Atlantic piece, lightly rewritten, appeared in about forty news outlets over the next 24 hours. I got loads of interview requests and I did one of them before realizing that this was a very bad idea, and that even normally staid news outlets like the BBC would be far more interested in my “confession” than in the broader argument about advertising and surveillance. And then the emails and the tweets started to come in, first cursing me out in English, and then in Turkish, Portuguese, Chinese and Croatian as the story spread globally.

Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, we would all be famous for 15 minutes. There’s another possibility: on the internet, we will all be intensely loathed for about 15 seconds.

Let me just pause for a moment and mention that my no good, very bad day on the internet is approximately equivalent to what many of my friends refer to as “Friday”. Which is to say, if you are an opinionated woman who writes online, you likely face ugly, misogynistic bullshit on a daily basis significantly more acute that the tongue in cheek death threats I received once this story took off. I don’t in any way mean to compare the mild abuse I faced at a moment of extreme visibility to the sorts or routine, everyday harassment many smart women face for merely expressing themselves online.

That said, I do now understand why someone would choose to go offline rather than wallow in hostility. I ended up taking a week entirely offline while things blew over, until only one in five emails was a death threat.

Of all the tweets hoping for my swift and painful demise, I was particularly struck by one written by a user in southeast Asia, whose tweet read, more or less: “@ethanz I do not accept your apology. This is your Frankenstein monster. You made it, you should kill it.”

I really liked this tweet. There’s something refreshingly simple about the idea that someone – one guy – could be responsible for things in the world that are badly broken. And once we find that guy, we can either string him up or demand that he fix it. It’s the inverse of the great man theory of history, where we declare Edison the great man who commercialized electricity and brought about the modern world, cutting out Tesla, Westinghouse and hundreds of others. This is the rat bastard theory of history, where if only that one SOB hadn’t put pop up ads on user homepages, the world would be a slightly pleasanter place.

The rat bastard theory is helpful because it gives you a single, concrete individual to hate. Back in my darkest, saddest days, when I used to use Windows, I really enjoyed hating Bill Gates, despite the fact that my anger was clearly misplaced. It’s clear that there were all sorts of design decisions that made Windows agonizing to use in the late 1990s, not an evil plan from Bill Gates, who has turned out to be a pretty terrific guy. But it’s a lot easier to see the rat bastard than to see the whole problem.

The problem with the internet in the late 1990s is that we wanted it to be available to everybody in the world. That’s partially because it seemed like the fair thing to do, and partially because we genuinely loved the web and wanted to evangelize for it globally. But most people didn’t know why the web was cool, why they’d want to build a homepage or send status updates to friends, so they weren’t about to pay us to use it. And so we ended up with the only business model we could think of – broadcast advertising. You’ll get our services for free, and we’ll demand some of your attention to sell to advertisers in exchange. Basically, we didn’t know how to pay for the internet for everyone, so we decided to make the internet work the way broadcast television worked.

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

But there are people imagining something very different. Maceij Ceglowski, whose brilliant talk got me thinking about the broken state of the web, has built a bookmarking service called pinboard that’s really cheap – about $5 – but not free. He did it because he imagined something different, not a site to sell to another company, but a service he wanted to have available to the world that’s been profitable since the day he started it. WhatsApp is a wildly popular messaging service that charges users $0.99 a year, and had over 400 million users before Facebook bought it, an amazing example that people are willing to pay for tools they need and use. I just learned about a social network called Connect Fireside that’s designed for the mobile phone and optimized for sharing photos with your family and close friends, not with the whole world. It’s not cheap – it’s $20 a month right now – and who knows if it will survive, but it’s exciting to see someone build something based on a different set of assumptions.

Once you get rid of those assumptions – everything is free, the user is the product being sold to advertisers, and the goal is to be a venture-backed billion dollar business – and lots of things are possible. My friends in Kenya got sick of losing internet connectivity every time the power went off, so they went onto Kickstarter and funded BRCK, which is a portable internet router for the developing world that relies on the mobile phone network. The people who paid for it were people who wanted and needed the device, so were willing to pay for it to be built – crowdfunding, as a model, asks that you give up the assumption that people have to instantly receive the things they buy. Turns out that sometimes we’re willing to pay for something in the hope that it might come to pass, someday.

Turns out we’re also willing to pay for things because we love them and we want them to exist. I’ve become a massive fan of a deeply strange podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which might be described as a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Twilight Zone. The podcast is free, but listeners are encouraged to donate $5 a month, and many do… Many more come to live shows, buy tickets and merchandise, which has allowed the creators to expand the podcast, bringing in new actors and musicians, launch a 16 city tour of Europe and write a book about the Night Vale universe. Putting something beautiful and strange out into the world and hoping people will love it is not the most reliable business model, but it sometimes turns out to be viable.

Remember my friend on Twitter who wanted me to kill Frankenstein’s monster? He got part of it wrong in assuming that I’m the rat bastard solely responsible for the situation we’re in today. But he got part of it right. He’s right that people like me can and should be trying to fix things.

The things that are broken about the internet today – and there are a lot of them – are the product of design decisions that fallible, mortal human beings have made over the past twenty years. Twenty years is not a long time. I have t-shirts older than the world wide web. The web wasn’t built by enlightened geniuses whose trains of thought we could never comprehend – it was built by idiots like me, doing the best we could at the time. It’s possible to look at every technical and design decision that’s led to where we are today and make different choices than the people who made those bad choices.

There’s a lot of things I don’t like about how the web works today. I don’t like that our attention is constantly for sale. I don’t like that public sharing is the default. I don’t like that the web never forgets. I think the always on, inescapable nature of the web is proving really exhausting for us as human beings. And I’m scared that the new public spaces, the places where we come together to debate the future, are owned and controlled by a few massive companies that have enormous potential power over what we’re able to discuss online.

But the mistake would be to assume that these shortcomings are inevitable, that they are simply natural consequences of how people interact online. The mistake is to stop questioning the assumptions about how the world worlds, to stop imagining ways things could be different and better.

I should probably mention that this is not a talk about internet business models.
Actually, it’s a talk about civics.

If you think the web is broken – and I do – you should take a look at American democracy. Here’s another case where fallible humans made design decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time and now have had some clearly disastrous consequences. Sure, having professional representatives deliberate together and govern a nation is a pretty cool hack when the dominant governance technology of the time is feudalism. One person, one vote elections – once we finally got around to fully implementing it? Cool idea. Freedom of speech for individuals as well as organizations? Seems pretty important for the rest of the system to work.

Put these things together and we’ve somehow ended up with a system where the Democratic Congressional Committee recommends to new congresspeople that they spend 4-5 hours a day raising money, and only 3-4 hours meeting with constituents or working to craft legislation. It’s a system that constituents hate – it’s part of the reason Congress has a single-digit approval rating – and Congresspeople hate, too, which is why some incumbents are choosing to leave office. But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened, to trace the decisions that brought us to a deeply undesirable place. We can invoke the rat bastard theory and blame Chief Justice John Roberts for Citizens United decision, but we’re following the same fallacy – this is a failure of imagination, not the failure of any one person (or even five supreme court justices)

It’s possible to imagine something very different. Larry Lessig is working very hard to bring a new model to life, where every voter gets $50 of government funds to give to politicians who can use the money to campaign. To imagine that model, you have to give up a bunch of assumptions: that you have a right to spend money to influence politics; that governments should try to do less, not more. And you have to be ready to cope with all the unintended consequences of the new system as well, of people selling their government funds to politicians through brokers, of social media becoming an endless campaign battle ground.

We need a ton more of this, people questioning assumptions that representation makes more sense than direct democracy, that decisions at the federal level are more important than those locally, that money is convertible into power. We need lots of Lessigs taking on these sorts of imaginative experiments, because most of them are going to fail.

Here are two really big assumptions I want to question:
– that participating in representative democracy is the core act of what it means to be a good citizen
– and that everyone is going to participate in our democracy in more or less the same way

You know what it means to be a good citizen – you’re supposed to read the newspaper and keep up on events locally and globally, and vote every two years and maybe call your congressman if something really pisses you off. And you probably know that this isn’t going to make very much of a difference. And that your congressperson is heading into a paralyzed institution that’s rarely able to pass legislation.

So let’s question the assumption that fixing Congress – or even more ambitiously, fixing politics – is the most important part of fixing citizenship. In the 50s and 60s, people figured out that, when you’re prevented from voting by law, public protests – marches, sit ins, boycotts – are a critical part of citizenship. As Congress starting passing civil rights legislation, activists learned that lawsuits were a critical tool to ensure that laws applied to everyone and enforced fairly. We rarely think of suing the government as a way to be a good citizen, but it’s been critical in building the rights-based society we have today.

There are at least three ways I think people can be civically active even if they’re frustrated with paralysis in politics. Make media. When people saw tanks in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to counter peaceful protests, they made media and started a conversation about the militarization of America’s police forces. When they saw a newspaper picture of Michael Brown looking threatening, they started tweeting #iftheyshotmedown, asking whether the media were being fair in their choice of picture to portray the victim of a police shooting. Media is how we understand the world, and we can shape our public conversation by building civic media.

Make new things. I’m deeply frustrated that my government is surveilling my communications and those of millions of others worldwide, and I’m angry that so little legislative action has been taken in the wake of Ed Snowden’s revelations. But I’m really happy that software developers like Tor, Mailpile, Redphone and Mailvelope are working to make it easy to encrypt email and phonecalls and make it harder for anyone to surveil our communications. Make businesses. I’m concerned about climate change, I want to see a carbon tax, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see Tesla making electric cars that are sexy and for people as broke as me, excited that I drove here in a diesel car that gets almost fifty miles to the gallon. Building businesses that do well while doing good is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in civics today.

Here’s what’s tricky about expanding civics to include making media, making code and making money: it’s not a level playing field. Voting is something everyone can do – right now, making code or making media is easier for some people than others. We’re going to need to think hard about how we prepare the next generation of citizens for a world where their power comes not just from voting but from making, and where someone’s civics unfolds in the marketplace while someone else’s unfolds in Congress.

If you want to overcome failures of imagination – accepting that the web or our politics are inescapably broken – you’ve got to try something new. You’re probably going to fail. And when you do, I recommend that you try again. But first I recommend that you apologize. It feels really good. I’m sorry, and thank you for listening.

August 27, 2014

Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story

Filed under: ideas,Media — Ethan @ 2:48 pm

Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on Saturday August 9, 2014. After his body lay in the hot street for four hours, Ferguson residents took to the streets to protest his killing. Brown’s death, the ensuing protest and the militarized police response opened a debate about race, justice and policing in America that continues today.

I heard about Michael Brown’s death for the first time on the evening of the 9th, through Twitter. Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based journalist, was retweeting accounts of the protest, and other Twitter friends who write about racial justice issues, including Sherrilyn Ifill, the director of NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, were discussing the implications of Brown’s killing and the community and police response. I wrote a quick blog post, noting how little mainstream media response there had been at that point, and how much of the coverage had focused on the anger of the crowd, which one outlet termed “a mob”. At that early point, there was not a dedicated Wikipedia article focused on Brown’s death, nor had major national newspapers, like the New York Times, written about Brown. For many people outside of the reach of local St. Louis media, Twitter was the medium that introduced people to the city of Ferguson.

The Pew Research Center confirms this picture. In a thorough analysis of early media coverage of the events in Ferguson, Paul Hitlin and Nancy Vogt of Pew note that cable news didn’t report the story until Monday the 11th, two days after the shooting. Cable news attention peaked on Thursday, August 14, after Ferguson police arrested two reporters and President Obama interrupted his vacation to report on the situation. Twitter attention peaked at the same time, with 3.6 million Ferguson-related tweets on the 14th, but it’s worth noting that Twitter showed a steady and growing interest in the topic from Saturday the 9th onward.

This pattern of attention to Michael Brown’s killing contrasts sharply with early attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. My students Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and I studied media coverage of the Martin killing using our Media Cloud tools and found that they key factor in expanding the conversation about Martin’s death beyond Central Florida was a careful PR campaign orchestrated by Benjamin Crump, an attorney retained by Martin’s parents. These PR efforts led to national television coverage of the story, which in turn led to a surge of interest on Twitter and in other participatory media.

In the case of Michael Brown, over 140,000 Twitter posts mentioned Ferguson on August 9th, the day of the shooting. Twitter led other media in 2014, while broadcast media led in 2012. When Crump announced he would be representing the family of Michael Brown on August 11, two days after the shooting, there was no need for a PR campaign, as the story of Brown’s death was already gaining traction in the media.

Pew’s analysis of Michael Brown versus Trayvon Martin shows that attention to events in Ferguson built more quickly than attention to events in Stanford, FL. There are several reasons for this. The police response to protests added a dimension to the Ferguson story that was not present in discussions of Trayvon Martin – many of the tweets on August 14 focused on the arrest of working journalists and the use of military equipment by Ferguson police. (When Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson took over control of law enforcement response in Ferguson on August 14, ordering officers to remove riot gear, attention on Twitter dropped sharply, suggesting some of the attention was on policing tactics.)

Twitter’s reach has grown since 2012, and the power of “black twitter”, which Soraya Nadia McDonald describes as both “cultural force” and social network, to challenge racist narratives has grown. Outrage on Twitter over a book deal for a juror who acquitted George Zimmerman led to the deal being withdrawn. Noting the power of outraged channeled through a hashtag, some African American Twitter users began posting contrasting photos of themselves under the tag #iftheygunnedmedown, suggesting that media were emphasizing the narrative of Michael Brown as “thug”, by using a photo in which Brown is displaying a peace sign (which many have read as a gang sign), rather than other photos in which Brown looks young and entirely unthreatening. The hashtag allowed Twitter users to participate in the dialog about Ferguson in cases where they had nothing to share about the situation on the ground by participating in a conversation about larger issues of structural racism in American media.

While events in Ferguson received widespread attention on Twitter, some observers saw very different behavior on their Facebook feeds.

John McDermott, writing in Digiday, offered this elegant formulation: “Facebook is for Ice Buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson”. Using data from SimpleReach, McDermott suggests that there were roughly eight times as many stories about events in Ferguson posted to Facebook as stories about the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, but that the stories received roughly the same exposure on Facebook (approximately 3.5 million Facebook “referrals” – appearances on a Facebook user’s screen – for each story between August 7-20th.) In the same time period, Crimson Hexagon calculated that there were roughly 1.5 times as many tweets about Ferguson as about the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The near-equal attention to Ferguson and the Ice Bucket Challenge that SimpleReach’s numbers suggest hardly seems like the substance of a controversy about algorithmic censorship, but it is worth noting that vastly more stories about Ferguson were posted to Facebook than stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge. The average story about the Ice Bucket Challenge was much more heavily promoted by Facebook’s algorithms (a factor of 8x) than the average story about Ferguson. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi suggests that this disparity may have been more significant early in the Ferguson story, which made the disparity between Facebook and Twitter more dramatic.

Tufekci goes on to observe that while Twitter (at present) is a “neutral” provider, simply delivering you tweets from the accounts you’ve chosen to follow, Facebook algorithmically “curates” your feed, offering you a selection of content that it believes you will find most interesting. She points out that this is a serious danger to democratic discourse. Facebook could censor our information flows and it would be difficult for us to determine that such censorship was taking place. The algorithms Facebook uses are opaque, which means conversations about how the algorithm work sound a bit like speculation about divine will. Tufecki suggests that Facebook may have altered their algorithm overnight to give Ferguson stories more prominence, which may be true but is impossible to verify. Others have speculated that Facebook tunes its algorithm to favor “happy news” and discourage serious news. Again, this is possible – and could even reflect lessons learned from Facebook’s mood manipulation experiments – but unverifiable.

Here are some of the things we do know about Facebook, which may explain why news appears differently on different social media platforms.

It’s hard to search Facebook. When news breaks, Twitter users enter search terms and hashtags and receive an updated stream of tweets on the topic in question. On August 9th, I was able to follow reports from Ferguson and quickly choose Twitter users to follow who appeared to be at or near the scene. On Facebook, searching for “Ferguson” gives you the names of many people named Ferguson who Facebook thinks you might know. (You can, conveniently, choose to “Like” the city of Ferguson, which is probably pretty far from what most people searching for Ferguson want to do.)

Non-reciprocal following makes it easier to diversify who you follow on Twitter. If I see that St. Louis-based rapper Tef Poe is reporting on Twitter regarding Ferguson, I can follow him, and I will see any public tweets he makes in my timeline. On Facebook, I need the approval of someone to follow their personal feed – they need to confirm our friendship before I can read what they’re saying.

It’s typical on Twitter for people to start following accounts of people they don’t know personally, especially when those people are eyewitnesses to or well-informed commenters on an event. I followed a set of users in Egypt while the Tahrir protests were taking place and stopped following many afterwards – I’ve done the same with Ferguson. This is much more difficult to do on Facebook – the platform is designed to connect you with friends, not sources, and to maintain those friendships over time.

People have a relatively small number of Facebook friends – the median figure is 200 – and many white American Facebook users likely have few or no African-American Facebook friends. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Facebook – it’s a broader reflection of American demographics and patterns of homophily, the tendency of “birds of a feather” to flock together. Robert Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute used data from the 2013 American Values Survey to estimate the racial composition of people’s social networks. He projects that the average white American has only one black friend, and that 75% of white Americans have entirely white social networks. (There’s an interesting debate about PRRI’s methodology, with Eugene Volokh arguing that it’s hard to estimate weak social ties by asking people about people they confide in.)

We can build on these numbers to speculate about what might be going on with Facebook and stories about Ferguson. Most people who follow Facebook believe that the company’s algorithm favors stories likely to be shared by a lot of people in your social network – Facebook favors viral cascades over surfacing novel content. If few users in your circle of friends are sharing stories about Ferguson – which is a distinct possibility if you are white and most of your friends are white – Facebook’s algorithm may see this as a story unlikely to “go viral” and tamp it down, rather than amplifying it, as it has with the ALS stories. On the other hand, if many of your friends are sharing the Ferguson story – likely if you have many African-American friends or if you follow racial justice issues – your corner of the Facebook network could be part of a viral cascade.

A new paper from Pew and Rutgers suggests another reason why Ferguson might have had difficulty spreading on Facebook. Keith Hampton and the other authors of the study found that people are acutely attuned to what conversations are happening on social networks and are unlikely to bring up topics perceived to be controversial. The users the authors surveyed were half as likely to bring up controversial topics on Facebook or Twitter as they were in face to face conversations. The exception was when they believed their friends on social networks agreed with their positions, in which case they were more likely to bring up the topic on social networks. In the case of Ferguson, this suggests that a Facebook user, unsure of whether her friends share her opinion that the police overreacted in Ferguson, might be more reluctant to post a Ferguson story on Facebook than she would be to bring up the situation in conversation. If there were a cascade of stories on Ferguson, she would have a social signal that the topic was acceptable and would be more likely to participate. On Twitter, where it’s not uncommon to follow dozens of people you don’t know well, it’s easier to interpret those social signals than on Facebook, where you are more likely to know an ethnically homogenous set of friends.

I’m far from immune to these echo chamber effects. One of my students surprised me with a link to a USA Today article reporting that more money had been raised to support Darren Wilson, the police officer accused of killing Brown than had been raised by Brown’s family. Few of my Facebook or Twitter friends were raising money for Officer Wilson, and so I was surprised to discover that a successful campaign was being held on his behalf. My ignorance of the campaign to support Wilson suggests that I have my own diversity issues in social media – if I want a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ reactions to Ferguson, I need to increase the ideological diversity of the people I follow online.


Special bonus: Jon Stewart takes the Ferguson challenge, which turns out to be utterly unlike the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.

May 21, 2014

When Being Happy is Political

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media,newcivics — Tags: , , , , , , , — Ethan @ 12:29 pm

The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.


Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.


The original “Happy” video

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.

There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.


Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”

Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.


“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)


The original “Empire State of Mind”


“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”

The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.


Lazy Munzie


Lazy Ramadi

The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)


Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.


Dig Grave Style

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.


Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.

We Are Happy From front page

We Are Happy From front page

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.


The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.


Happy in Tehran

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”


The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.

April 20, 2014

Water monitoring in China, and the changing role of citizenship

Filed under: Developing world,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 4:15 pm

This January, a few hundred employees of Alibaba, the massive online retailer and digital payments company, participated in an interesting experiment. Like many Chinese, they traveled home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. While at home, they used inexpensive water testing kits to sample water in their villages and uploaded their findings via smartphone to an environmental mapping website, Danger Maps. Employees measured water quality in 420 locations across 28 provinces, testing open bodies of water as well as sources of drinking water.

The experiment was a trial run for a much more ambitious rollout, announced this week. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, announced that water testing kits would be sold through Taobao for between 65-80 yuan ($10-13) and invited the public to join his employees in becoming water quality monitors. Yang Fangyi, one of the managers of the Alibaba Foundation, explained that by mapping areas of poor water quality, the Foundation can work with local environmental authorities and NGOs to work on cleanup plans.

watermap
Test results posted to water.epmap.org

Environmental degradation is one of the most serious problems facing China. A report from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning suggests that China lost 3.5% of the nation’s GDP in environmental damages in 2010. Air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and journalists have compared Beijing’s air quality (unfavorably) to that in airport smoking lounges and industrial London on the most polluted days of the mid-20th century. Maintaining and improving air and water quality while continuing to rapidly industrialize are huge challenges for the country. Environmental issues are also an area where the Chinese government has been comparatively open about discussing problems and seeking international cooperation; Premier Li Keqiang addressed environmental problems in his address to the National People’s Congress last month, and US organizations that work with China report that it’s far easier to cooperate on environmental issues than on more sensitive issues like human rights or worker safety.

textkitpackaging

testkitcontents
The kit, and its contents

The little blue kit, manufactured by Greenovation Hub, may test China’s openness around environmental advocacy. Inside are tests for ph, Phosphates, Ammonia, Chemical Oxygen Demand (used to indirectly measure organic contaminants in water), and for five heavy metals, including cadmium and zinc. It’s more home chemistry lab than slick, sophisticated sensors – you’ll be dipping litmus paper into a stream and measuring the color that results, then entering the data into your phone if you participate in the project.

It’s unclear how many of Alibaba’s 500 million customers will purchase water quality kits and start uploading data to Danger Maps. Even if only a few participate, the implications could be very interesting. Land use issues are a major civic flashpoint in China. If farmers are able to document damage to the local watershed from a new factory, for instance, it might change the dialog, bringing nascent environmental watchdog organizations and government departments into the debate over land use.

Groups like Public Lab in the US and Safecast in Japan have been using crowdsourcing models to document environmental issues, monitoring water quality and radiation levels. Their work raises questions of whether we want citizens to be cooperative sensors, or citizen scientists. The latter is a high bar to cross – we need citizens not only to collect data but to formulate and test hypotheses. What we gain in exposing participants to the scientific process, we may lose in terms of data quality and believability. Safecast has traded accessibility for accuracy – their bGeigie geiger counter is pretty expensive in kit form, but is a lab-quality instrument, which allows Safecast to use the data collected to engage the Japanese government in dialog about post-Fukushima reconstruction. On the other hand, using a Safecast counter, it’s easy to feel like your job is simply that of a data collector, not someone figuring out the complex puzzle of when towns and villages will be safe to inhabit. (Safecast describes itself as a global sensor network, acknowledging that it’s strength is data collection, not the broader issue of citizen science.)

There’s a balance between accessible sensors, high-quality data and the ability for users to formulate and test hypotheses that crowdsensing projects need to wrestle with going forward – based on some of the results thus far, it seems like the Greenovation kit favors access over accuracy. (I suspect there’s not really that much standing water in China at ph10, despite reports on the map.) But it’s possible that communities affected by industrial pollution might purchase multiple sensors, organize testing plans and oversampling to improve accuracy. They might also look for sources of industrial runoff and test hypotheses about how industrial development is affecting their community. Consider a project from CMU called CATTFish. It’s a water monitor that sits in your toilet tank and measures temperature and conductivity to sense possible changes in groundwater quality. It’s designed for communities concerned about pollution from hydrofracking – with high quality, regularly updated data from multiple homes, a community could have an early warning system for detecting potential ill-effects from oil extraction. (h/t to Heather Craig, who introduced me to the project.)

I think there’s another subtle change we should watch for as well. Environmental crowdsensing is a form of monitorial citizenship, an idea we’ve been discussing a lot lately at Center for Civic Media. John Keane uses the term to describe the non-governmental and civic organizations that act as watchdogs, keeping governments honest and, sometimes, in check. Inspired in part by David Ronfeldt’s work on tribes, institutions, markets and networks, we’ve been looking at ways networked individuals can have similar monitorial power. The work we’re starting with Promise Tracker begins with asking citizens to monitor issues in their communities using mobile phones and will likely expand to asking citizens to use sensors to monitor water and air quality.

In our experiments with Promise Tracker in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, using mobile phones to document community problems and governmental and community responses to them, we quickly learned that many people don’t just want to collect data – they want to use data to tell stories and to advocate for change. Will citizens become sensors or scientists? Participants or activists? This may also have a lot to do with whether Greenovation Hub wants to build a business model or a movement, and whether a powerful, visible figure like Jack Ma is willing to have Alibaba become the nexus of an emerging environmental movement. That might be more potent and less dangerous than having individual groups organize to address water quality issues on a small scale and face potential backlash from local authorities.

I’m interested in monitorial citizenship because I see monitoring powerful institutions – commercial, governmental and otherwise – as something one can do every day as a citizen. Elections come around every few years and get all the attention, but it’s possible that the real power of citizenship comes from the monitoring that takes place between the elections. In a Chinese context, where power doesn’t come through electoral mechanisms, monitorial citizenship may have even more power – it may be a more genuine, authentic, believable path to political power than others available to most Chinese citizens.

March 25, 2014

Susan Benesch on dangerous speech and counterspeech

Filed under: Berkman,Blogs and bloggers,Developing world,Media — Ethan @ 8:57 pm

Susan Benesch is one of the leading thinkers on countering hate speech online. She’s a fellow at the Berkman Center this year, and I’m terribly sorry to be missing her talk at Berkman this afternoon. (Instead, I’m watching from home so I can be primary caretaker for my son for a couple of weeks while Rachel gets to travel.) She teaches international human rights at American University and is the founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, which tries to understand the spread of speech that incites people to violence.

Susan’s talk is available online and I’ve tried to blog it remotely while cursing my inability to teleport across the state. The talk is wonderfully titled “Troll Wrastling for Beginners: Data-Driven Methods to Decrease Hatred Online”. Unlike most conventional online wisdom, Benesch believes you should engage with the trolls, in part because it may be the most successful path to countering dangerous speech. The approaches states have taken to dangerous speech – punishment and censorship – don’t work very well, and some evidence suggests that they work even worse online than offline. She suggests the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was ultimately killed by a drone strike – despite being punished (via summary execution from a US drone), his online speeches continue to be influential and may have influenced the Boston Marathon bombers. Censoring that speech doesn’t work well in an online environment as it’s likely to move onto other platforms.

So what about “don’t feed the trolls”? Benesch points out that there are several implicit assumption in that advice. We assume that if we ignore a troll, they will stop (which, in turn, tends to assume behavior that’s only on a signal platform.) There’s an assumption that online hate is created by trolls; in the few experiments that look at racist and sexist speech, at least half is produced by non-trolls. We tend to assume that all trolls have the same motivations and that they will respond to the same controls. And finally, we assume that the trolls are the problem – we need to consider effects on the audience.

(Benesch doesn’t define trolls until pressed by the audience and points out that it’s a term she uses with tongue in cheek, most of the time – she acknowledges that different trolls have different motivations. Her goal is to move away from considering trolls as the problem and towards understanding dangerous speech as a broader phenomenon.)

One of the benefits of online speech environments, Benesch posits, is that we can examine the effect of speech on people. In offline environments, it’s very hard to measure what reactions dangerous speech leads to – in online environments, it may be possible to track both responses and effects.

Benesch’s suggestion is that we should approach dangerous speech through counterspeech, in effect, talking back to the trolls and to others. In explaining her logic, she notes that the internet doesn’t create hate speech – in some cases, it may disinhibit us from speaking. But more often, the internet creates an environment where we are aware of speech we otherwise wouldn’t hear. Most of us wouldn’t have been aware of what speech is shared at a KKK meeting, and many of us wouldn’t have heard the sexist jokes that were told in locker rooms. Now speech is crossing between formerly closed communities.

This is a new feature of human life, Benesch suggests, and while it causes a great deal of pain, it’s also an opportunity. We can “toss speech back across those boundaries to see what effect it has.” For the most part, we don’t know what will happen when we expose speech this way, and it’s possible the effects could be very positive. She asks us to consider norm formation in teenagers – most 16 year olds, she argues, have historically developed opinions from a small, homogenous community around them. That’s no longer the case, and it positive opportunity for teens to develop a broader and more nuanced worldview.

Believing in counterspeech means having faith that it’s possible to shift norms in speech communities. Benesch asks “What is the likelihood an American politician will use the N-word in public?” While there’s a constitutionally protected right to use such an offensive term, the probability of a speaker using the term is near zero. Yet, she argues, 60 years ago there were places in the US where you likely could not have been elected without using that word. “People’s behavior shifts dramatically in response to community norms,” she suggests, and as many of 80% of people are likely to follow the norms of speech consistent with a space and a situation, even trolls.

One of Benesch’s case studies for counterspeech comes from Kenya, where dangerous speech was a key component to violence in the wake of 2007’s disputed election. With over a thousand killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, the 2007-8 unrest was one of the ugliest chapters in the nation’s history, and as Kenya prepared for elections in 2013, many Kenyans were worried about inflammatory and dangerous speech online.

Benesch worked with Kenya data scientists at the iHub and the team at Ushahidi to build Umati (from the Swahili word for crowd), which collected reports of online hate speech. What they found was a wave of inflammatory speech from Facebook, and astonishingly little dangerous speech on Twitter. This disparity is not well explained by platform usage – Twitter is extremely popular in Kenya. Instead, it’s explained by counterspeech.

When inflammatory speech was posted on Twitter, prominent Kenyan twitter users (often members of the #KOT, Kenyans on Twitter, community) responded by criticizing the poster, often invoking the need to keep discourse in the country civil and productive. This counterspeech was surprisingly successful – Benesch tells the story of a Twitter user who posted that he would be okay with the disappearance of another ethnic group, and was immediately called out by other Twitter users. Within a few minutes, he had tweeted, “Sorry, guys, what I said wasn’t right and I take it back”.

This isn’t the behavior of a troll, Benesch argues. If the user in question were simply looking for attention, he wouldn’t have backed down when his inflammatory tweets met with spontaneous counterspeech. This online counterspeech is especially important when online speech is magnified by broadcast media, as it is in both Kenya and the US – it’s possible for television and newspapers to magnify not just the hateful speech but the attempts to counteract it.

By studying successful examples of counterspeech, Benesch is trying to develop a taxonomy of counterspeech and determine when and where different forms are most useful. She takes inspiration from examples like that of a young man in the US tweeting angrily about Nina Davuluri being named Miss America. The young man inaccurately and disparagingly referred to Davuluri as “an Arab”, and was immediately countered on Twitter by people who called out his racism. Within a few hours, he’d tweeted something resembling an apology to Davuluri herself.

Benesch wonders, “Can we put together the ideas of counterspeech and the idea of influencing 16 year olds?” It’s not realistic to believe we’re going to change the behavior of hardcore haters, she tells us, but we only need to influence a critical mass of people within a community, not the outliers.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t the only environments for inflammatory speech online – anyone who’s participated in online gaming knows that there’s toxic and hostile speech in online environments. Riot Games was concerned about the speech surrounding their popular game League of Legends and cooperated with academic researchers to understand speech in their game universe. The study found that fully half of the inflammatory messages were coming from users we wouldn’t normally consider to be trolls – they came from people who generally behaved like other game players, but were having a bad day and lashed out in ways that were inflammatory. They also discovered that very small changes in the platform – changes in language used to prompt players, apparently minor changes like font and text color – could improve behavior substantially.

Facebook’s “compassion research” project works on similar ideas, trying to get people to use Facebook in more pro-social ways. When you try to flag content on Facebook as offensive, Facebook first prompts you to engage with the person who offended you, suggesting language to communicate to the other user: “Could you take this down? It hurts my feelings.” As with Riot Games, they’ve found that small prompts can lead to dramatic behavior changes.

Benesch has been using these insights to consider problems of inflammatory speech in Myanmar (a topic I learned a little about in my visit to the country earlier this month.) In Myanmar, Facebook is the dominant internet platform, not just the dominant social media platform – if you search for information in Myanmar, you’re probably searching Facebook. In this environment, a rising tide of highly inflammatory speech inciting Buddhists against Muslims, particularly against the Rohingya people, is especially concerning. Not only does Facebook in Myanmar lead to echo chambers where no one may be willing to challenge inflammatory speech with counterspeech, but some of the mechanisms that work elsewhere may not work in Myanmar.

In a country that’s suffered under a military dictatorship for half a century, the idea of “reporting” people for their speech can be very frightening. Similarly, being encouraged to engage with someone who posted something offensive when you have reason to fear this person, or his friends, might threaten your life, isn’t a workable intervention. Any lessons from Facebook’s compassion research needs to be understood in specific human contexts. Benesch asks how you should respond to offensive speech as a Facebook user in Myanmar: you can like the post, but you can’t unlike it. If you respond in the comments thread, you’re participating in a space where the page owner can eliminate or bury your comment. This points to the challenge of using a private space as a quasi-public space.

We need more research on questions like this, Benesch offers. We need to understand different responses to dangerous speech, from “don’t feed the trolls” to counterspeech, to see what’s effective. We need to understand whether counterspeech that seeks to parody or use humor is more effective than direct confrontation. And we need to understand discourse norms in different communities as what works in one place is unlikely to work in another. Louis Brandeis advised that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. As researchers, we can go further and investigate which speech is a helpful counter to bad speech.


I’ll admit that the topic of Benesch’s research made me uneasy when we first met. I’m enough of a first amendment absolutist that I tend to regard talk of “dangerous speech” as an excuse for government control of speech. I had a great meeting with Benesch just before I went to Myanmar, and was much better prepared for the questions I fielded there than if I hadn’t benefitted from her wisdom. She’s done extensive work understanding what sorts of speech seems to drive people to harm one another, and she’s deeply dedicated to the idea that this speech can be countered more effectively than it could be censored or banned.

The conversation after her talk gave me a sense for just how challenging this work is – it’s tricky to define inflammatory speech, dangerous speech, trolling, etc. What might be a reasonable intervention to counter speech designed to incite people to violence might not be the right intervention to make a game community more inviting. On the other hand, counterspeech may be more important in ensuring that online spaces are open and inviting to women and to people of different races and faiths than they are right now, even if inflammatory speech never descends to the level of provoking violence.

For people interested in learning more about this topic, I’d recommend the links on the Berkman talk page as well as this essay from Cherian George, who was at the same meeting I attended in Myanmar and offered his thoughts on how the country might address its inflammatory speech online. I’m looking forward to learning more from Susan’s work and developing a more nuanced understanding of this complicated topic.

March 21, 2014

Imagining Wenzhou – How can we use the Internet to introduce readers to unfamiliar cities?

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 4:23 pm

In 2006, American adman Dan Ligon shared a video, “Ha Ha Ha America”, that he’d entered in the Sundance film festival. The video presents itself as an angry and dismissive rant about China’s superiority and America’s inferiority, badly subtitled in Chinglish. I wrote about the film when it came out, troubled by the racism associated with the Chinglish narration, and my fear it would be misread as reality, not satire, by American audiences. The Shanghaiist and some other China-based commentators were similarly troubled, though one Daily Kos reader found it a helpful wakeup call about China’s rise and America’s failure to compete economically.


A story about shooting Ha Ha Ha America, from Ligon’s site.

The film is shot in Wenzhou, and central to its narrative is the idea that Wenzhou, China’s 16th largest city, is likely to surpass New York City in population soon. This requires some blurring of the numbers – the Wenzhou jurisdiction, which includes two satellite cities and six counties, has a population of about 9 million, though only 3 million live in the city proper. New York City has an urban population of over 8 million and 20 million in the broader metropolitan area. Ligon’s comparison is apples to oranges (metropolitan area to urban population), but it’s a provocative idea that a city most Americans had never heard of could rival the population of America’s largest cities.

What interested me about Ligon’s film was the juxtaposition of a narrative about China’s rise with the images of a cityscape that isn’t going to challenge New York City for tourists any time soon. If Ligon’s argument is that size matters, then perhaps discovering that a massive city that reads visually as a somewhat sleepy provincial capital tells us that a future of Chinese megacities is going to look very different from the European/American 20th century. Or perhaps there’s a subtler message that size isn’t everything, and that iconic, aspirational cities occupy another conceptual space entirely.


Ha Ha Ha America, on YouTube

I was thinking about “Ha Ha Ha America” because I realize I don’t have a very clear picture of what Chinese cities look like. I’ve recently been to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and in the more distant past, to Beijing, but it’s very hard for me to picture what I think Wenzhou would look like.

I’ve been thinking about Chinese cities because my colleague Catherine d’Ignazio is working on a project called Terra Incognita, an online game that tracks your reading about different cities and invites you to explore readings about unfamiliar parts of the world. The project is a reaction, in part, to my writings about homophily and serendipity. By helping you monitor your reading behavior, Terra Incognita can reveal your blind spots, and then help you find ways to explore content from those unknown parts of the world.

brazzaville

Catherine’s current implementation of Terra Incognita uses a browser plugin to track your reading (only on a whitelisted set of news sites) and opens a portal to one of the world’s 1000 largest cities when you open a new tab. Should you read a lot about Europe, you won’t get a page on Berlin, but might get Brazzaville, which could include a piece from my blog about Congolese sapeurs.

That we’re relying on this blog as a source of compelling content designed to help you explore unfamiliar places is an indicator of the main problem with the project: it’s hard to find compelling readings on many of the world’s cities. This problem is especially acute for China. Roughly 40% of the cities on the list Catherine is working from are in mainland China, and it’s not always easy to find English-language readings that introduce what’s exciting or special about a city to an international audience.

A Google search for Wenzhou will, tragically, turn up a lot of documents, due to a horrific train crash outside the city in July 2011. This New Yorker article by Evan Osnos is an excellent overview of the crash and the factor that led to it, but doesn’t tell you much about Wenzhou itself. The Wikipedia page on Wenzhou offers the intriguing hint that the city is legendary for its entrepreneurialism, and is the “birthplace of China’s private economy.” More bluntly, the article notes, “A popular saying calls Wenzhounese the “Jews of the Orient” (东方的犹太人). ”

Exploring this idea, I found Peter Hessler’s article for National Geographic, “China’s Instant Cities”. Hessler explores the growth of Lishui, a rapidly growing manufacturing city 80 kilometers from Wenzhou through the story of Boss Gao, a Wenzhouese entrepreneur who builds a factory to build bra underwires and rings (the wire rings that bra clasps hook into.) It’s a brilliant story, featured in a collection of 2008’s best magazine writing, and it did exactly what I hope Terra Incognita can do: help readers develop an interest in places they knew nothing about. (I’m now using magportal.com, a magazine search engine, to look for other Wenzhou articles, like Stephen Glain’s article in Smithsonian magazine, “A Tale of Two Chinas”, which contrasts entrepreneurial Wenzhou with Shenyang, a former government stronghold now facing hard times.

As I was writing “Rewire”, I had a helpful and long-running argument with David Weinberger, who worried that my hopes of engineering serendipity by tracking what we read, identifying blind spots and making suggestions would be less effective than a much simpler strategy – just read a really good magazine. The promise of Granta, The New Yorker or other elite magazines is simple: it doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the topic, because the writing is so good it will draw you in.

David’s right that quality matters. But I wonder if the magazine format is the key issue. Introducing someone to your community via news stories doesn’t work, as they lack context to understand the news. An encyclopedia article offers background, but no seduction, no reason to read and explore. Magazine articles need to draw you in and to expose you to the unfamiliar, and can’t assume as much context. Part of the success of Terra Incognita may rest on whether we can find these sorts of high quality, low context stories for a thousand cities.

How would you explain your hometown to a foreign visitor in half a dozen weblinks, or less? Wikipedia’s article on Pittsfield, MA includes an article in the Financial Times that generously describes our little city as “The Brooklyn of the Berskhires”, an article on retirement that points out that Pittsfield is the only US city where the majority of retirees are single, and an ESPN piece that details Pittsfield’s tenuous claim to be the birthplace of baseball. (A historian discovered an early reference to baseball in a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw, prohibiting playing the game near the city’s new meetinghouse, which featured glass windows. Pittsfield also features one of only two professional baseball stadiums that faces west, meaning the batter faces the setting sun. This means ballgames in Pittsfield routinely feature “sun delays”, during which play stops because the batter is blinded, leading also to our baseball team being named the Pittsfield Suns.)

Incomplete? Yes. Biased? Indeed. But if you’re interested in learning more either about Wenzhou or Pittsfield, perhaps Catherine is on to something.


Catherine and I would love your help on Terra Incognita – please sign up for the alpha site here, and if you have specific suggestions of stories to represent a city, please use this form. I’d also welcome general thoughts on how we should be looking for great stories linked to global cities.

March 13, 2014

140journos – When Citizen Media filled the reporting gap in Turkey

Filed under: Berkman,Blogs and bloggers,Media — Ethan @ 3:04 pm

Engin Onder and Zeynep Tufekci visited the Berkman Center today to talk about the rise of citizen reporting in Turkey. Tufekci is a leading scholar of online media and protest, and Onder is one of the founders of 140journos, an exciting citizen media group that’s been central to documenting Turkey’s protests in Gezi Park and across the nation.

Zeynep Tufekci offers an overview of the press situation in Turkey to provide context for Engin’s work with 140journos. There’s no golden age of press freedom in Turkey to look back to, she warns. After the military coup in 1980, the 1980s were a decade marked by military censorship. In the 1990s, Turkish media suffered from censorship around Kurdish issues, but there were media outlets that took journalism seriously within existing constraints.

In the 2000s, the concentration of power by AKP after their second election led to large conglomerates moving into the media business and buying up the press. Energy companies ended up buying leading newspapers, firing columnists and steering the paper’s editorial direction towards the government… and, coincidently, would win the next major government energy contract. Zeynep describes the situation as “ridiculous”, noting that a multiday clash in the heart of the nation’s biggest city was broadcast by CNN International, while CNN Turk broadcast a document on penguins. Talking to a Turkish journalist about the situation, the journalist explained a layered system of censorship: “First, I censor myself. Then my editor censors me, taking my already soft story and make it softer. And if that’s not still soft enough, the government may call a newspaper or TV station and demand coverage change.” Should an outlet not comply, they face massive tax bills, which mysteriously disappear when the media becomes more compliant.

engin

While the press is heavily constrained, Zeynep tells us, the internet is largely open. Websites have been blocked, but it was very easy to get around censorship using proxies. The blocking of YouTube, she tells us, wasn’t a serious obstacle to viewing content, as even the prime minister admitted he used proxies to access it. Instead, it was a tax strategy, trying to get Google to come to Turkey and pay taxes. That’s changing, however, and the new censorship regime promised is significantly more serious, including deep packet inspection.

Zeynep tells us of the Roboski Massacre, a bombing in the village of Uludere, in Kurdish areas where informal smuggling is part of the local economy. The village was bombed by military jets, killing 34 people. It was unclear whether this was a mistake by the military, or a conscious attack on the Kurdish population.

Every newsroom in the country knew about the story and all waited to hear whether they could publish about it. A Turkish journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to fly to the area and took a minibus to the village, encountering the massive funeral procession. He took an instagram photo and shared it on Twitter… which broke the media blackout and led everyone to start publishing news of the bombing. Akinan lost his job for this reporting and now works for an independent news organization.

The story of 140journos starts there, Zeynep tells us. Engin Onder introduces himself as a non-journalist from Istanbul, a former passive news consumer before media and news broke down. “We felt so sad about this issue, and thought we can do some stuff.” Onder runs a group of creative professionals called Institute of Public Minds, a group that operates creatively in physical and digital public spaces.

In early 2012, in the wake of the Roboski Massacre, Onder and his colleagues felt compelled to start building their own media systems to address the weaknesses of the professional media. Roboski wasn’t the only trigger – a set of pro-secularism protests in 2007 and a union protest in Ankara in 2009 also received no media coverage.

Akinan’s coverage of the Roboski massacre was the inspiration for Engin and his friends Cem and Safa. All three were heavy Twitter users, and they realized that Twitter and online services might be sufficient infrastructure to report the news, as it was all Akinan needed to break this critical story. They brainstormed names, and settled on 140journos, honoring Twitter’s character limit and using slang to poke fun at the professional status of journalist.

Cem had been kicked out of his house because his politics so sharply diverged from his father’s. His father read and watched only media from one conglomerate, while Cem began reading underground and alternative newspapers – for Cem, 140journos is about “hacking his father”, creating media that could sway his parents. Safa is a conservative and religious guy, who helps counterbalance the team. Engin tells us that he had only attended one rally before starting the project.

Before the Gezi protests, 140journos reported on key court cases using nothing more than a 3G mobile phone. At some point in a key trial, the judge demanded that journalists with press cards leave – the 140journos remained and continued tweeting from their phones. That led to discovery of the network by mainstream journalists (who probably resented 140journos for being able to remain in the courtroom.)

140journos made a point of visiting a wide range of public protests, including conservative protests against fornication. They believed it was important to ensure different groups understood each other and saw the diversity of protest movements.

Media coverage of 140journos had been pretty condescending, focusing on the youth of the participants, not on the quality of their reporting. Zeynep, on the other hand, took their work seriously, declaring “This is not ‘citizen journalism’ – this is ‘journalistic citizenship’.”

Once the Gezi Park protests broke out, 140journos found themselves at the heart of a massive movement in Istanbul. Part of the mantra of the Gezi movement was, “the media is dead – be the media”. This helps explain why, during a moment the police were spraying tear gas on Taksim Park, a protester was holding up an iPad and taking photos. Gezi brought a culture of documentation to Turkish protest movements.

The tools of the trade, Ergin tells us, include Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Vine, Instagram, as well as tools that help mine social media platforms. Tineye, Topsy, Google Image Search helped they find traffic cameras, which were also helpful. Google Maps allowed the team to identify where documentations took place, as did Yandex Panorama (similar to Google Streetview, but with coverage of Turkey.) When they heard the sames of people involved with the protests, they sought them out via Facebook, then scheduled in person or phone interviews. Internally, the team coordinated using WhatsAp.

During the protests, 140journos were tweeting hundreds of times a day. They noted different media usage patterns in different parts of the world. Istanbulis use a wide range of media types. Ankarans favor livestreaming. In Izmir, there was less content produced, more a complaint about what the media wasn’t covering.

When the culture of protest documentation became common, the role for 140journos changed into a practice of curating and verifying, not frontline reporting. They decided they couldn’t participate in the protests, and never physically appeared in the park so they could cover the protests with a level of detachment and neutrality. They may have sympathized with the protesters, but their role was as journalists, not activists.

To explain the working method, Ergin gives us an example from Rize, a conservative town that’s the home of the Prime Minister. A crowd, allegedly armed with knives, gathered in front of the office of a secularist group. Seeking to verify what was going on, they searched online, found a blurry photo of the protesters outside the office and started reading signs on the street. They began calling shops on the street and interviewing witnesses of the standoff. Ironically, one of the businesses nearby was a TV station which, unsurprisingly, was not reporting on the situation. Eventually, they also found a nearby traffic camera, and used a combination of the interviews and the street camera to confirm the story and report on it.

After the Gezi Park protests, Engin argues that the content of citizen journalism has been legitimized, the quality of citizen journalism content has been refined and the value of credibility has been strengthened throughout their network. There’s now a network of citizen journalists aside from 140journos, and 140journos often uses these networks to vet their work. 140journos builds their reporting on lists of citizens they’ve verified live in different Turkish cities – when an event takes place, they lean on those local sources.

In a remarkable twist, Veli Encü, a survivor of the Roboski Massacre, has become a correspondent. When warplanes fly over Uludere, he immediately reports to the network so that people can watch and ensure another massacre doesn’t take place. Cem’s father, who used to isolate himself in conservative media, has now become an activist and a much broader reader. And 140journos is now producing a radio show driven by citizen media, broadcasting once a week, and projecting their work onto the sides of public buildings to attract attention and open dialog with a broad range of participants.

We move into a Q&A, which I opened by asking whether the rise of citizen journalism has shamed Turkish journalists into changing their behavior. Engin is uncertain. He notes that the CEO of CNN Turk underestimates citizen journalism, likely seeing it as providing misinformation and poisoning public discourse. But media workers are starting to work as pirates, with 10 or more professional journalists contributing anonymously with stories they otherwise couldn’t get published. Zeynep suggests that there has been a significant change post-Gezi, with more actual news carried live. 140journos was a catalyst, she argues, but so were marches where people stood outside TV stations, waved money and begged reporters to do their jobs. There’s another cultural shift, both note. Citizens are willing to put themselves at personal risk to capture images from the frontline of protests.

A Berkman fellow asks whether there are any Turkish tools being used to produce this media. For better or worse, Engin explains, the tools used are those of social media, and almost all are hosted in the US, but available for no cost online. Furthermore, the journalism the team is doing is wholly non-commercial – they support themselves through other jobs and engage in their reporting as part of their civic engagement.

In the next few weeks, 140journos is planning to release two new tools. One will use elements of gamification to help increase the practice of verifying and factchecking reporting. The other will provide background detail on locations throughout Turkey on a data-enhanced map, which can be used as a way to provide context and background information on stories the network releases.

Another question asks whether there are any plans to monetize content. Engin is insistent that the priority is building better content, not working on sustainability. Another questioner asks whether coming internet censorship will make it difficult for 140journos to share content. Engin explains that the group has so many friends in the Pirate Party that they won’t have trouble finding VPNs, or helping their readers find VPNs. At the same time, he notes that it’s unclear how these admittedly draconian laws will actually be implemented. Engin notes that his group is non Anonymous (or anonymous) – they strongly believe they are doing nothing illegal, merely reporting the news.

Another question asks whether the Turkish government will begin mining online data to identify protesters. Zeynep explains that this isn’t necessary – every phone in Turkey is registered to an individual’s national ID, and the government has the identity of everyone who has appeared at protests. While there have been occasional arrests of people who tweeted to incite violence, there have not been widespread roundups of people involved with these demonstrations. Engin notes that the government probably cannot shut down the internet in Turkey without collapsing the government entirely.

Zeynep closes the conversation by noting her amazement when she discovered that 140journos was four college students, working in their free time. She draws an analogy to the groups that coordinated logistics during the Tahrir protests, who used social media to build a logistics team, inspired by a local cupcake shop that used Twitter in that fashion. Zeynep suggests that we’re seeing a technological shift that makes certain kinds of mobilization significantly easier than it ever had been before.

March 12, 2014

Myanmar, no longer closed, still complicated

Filed under: Developing world,Media — Ethan @ 10:34 pm

It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.

Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.

That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.

This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.

Shwedagon Pagoda at dawn

Shwedagon Pagoda at dawn

I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.

Clip from 2010 New Light of Myanmar

Clip from 2010 New Light of Myanmar

The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.

East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.

Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:

The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.

Yangon newsstand

Yangon newsstand

The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.

The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.

Guides to the Myanmar internet

Guides to the Myanmar internet

This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.

Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.

– Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)

– Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.

Mosque in Dalah, Myanmar

Mosque in Dalah, Myanmar

People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.

As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.

People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.

Commuter boat in Yangon

Commuter boat in Yangon

All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.

Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.


It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.

We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.

We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.

It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?

I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.

The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.

Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.

Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.

This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.

I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.

I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.

Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:

– Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.

Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.

This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.

– The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.

We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.

– Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques

I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.

We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.

– It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.

Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.

In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.

It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.

– Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech

I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.

Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.

Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.

– You can’t legislate truthful speech.

It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.

Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.

The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.

I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.

The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.

The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.

Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.

Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda

Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda

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